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Age Segregation and Generational Gap: What do these mean and why does it matter to the church?

One of my favorite memories of my niece was from years ago when we were on a family vacation at the beach. She was about three years old and discovering the joys of the pool for the first time. We were all in the water, calling out an invitation for her to join us, when she turned to us and yelled, “Hold on a minute! I’m acclimating!!”

We all started laughing!  She absolutely used the word in the right way but hearing it from a three year old was just too much. Kids do that a lot! They use really big words in accurate ways or, more frequently, really big words in inaccurate ways, and it’s hilarious.

But, let’s be honest, we adults do it too. Especially with buzz words. These words show up in social media posts, newscasts, and daily conversations, but are often vague and act as a catch all, making it very easy for us to say the word with a certain thing in mind and have the person listening take a very different meaning from what we’ve said.

The solution to this “problem” is simple. We just need to clearly define the words we use. But that takes time and it takes intentionality, both things that are not often used in our busy lives.

team-spirit-2447163_1920Last week I had the chance to speak with a church about two such phrases: age segregation and generational gap. Most had heard of the two phrases, but many had not really taken time to consider what it meant. The first was less familiar and conjured up thoughts of nursing homes and retirement communities. The second was more familiar and most people applied it to politics and clothing.

For the sake of clarity, we took some time and intentionality and looked at these two phrases.

Age Segregation is defined as the separation of people based on their ages.  This can be intentional liked nursing homes and graded classrooms or unintentional like social media and clothing trends.

Intentional age segregation is a relatively new phenomenon. Graded classrooms didn’t really get their start until the last 1800s/early 1900s and didn’t spread to the whole country for decades after that.

Similarly, before the 19th century, no age restricted institutions designed for long term care existed (Source). Nursing homes and retirement communities gained steam in 1954 when the federal government created a grant that would fund such institutions and in the 1960s when Medicare and Medicaid began and provided payment for those services (Source).

Generational gap is the perceived difference of opinions between one generation and another regarding beliefs, politics, or values. The most important word here is “perceived.”  That means that we think there is a difference of opinion but we don’t know that for sure. That perception fuels a lot of our interactions and the way we approach issues ranging from political agendas to our preferred cell phone plan.

Why are these things important to the church?

Well, just like with society, age segregation is a relatively new thing for the church as well. You can trace the rise of separating the church community based on age back to about the 1950s when we see the start of youth groups. Over time, the church became more and more focused on age specific ministries and creating both classes and services aimed at meeting the developmental and felt needs of different generations.

It’s not unusual for generations within a church to spend little if any time with one another.

As a result, just like in society, there is a perception within the church that there are significant differences of opinion on everything from sermon topics to worship styles. The generational gap within churches can often be seen by taking a look at who attends the “traditional” service and who attends the “contemporary” one.

Since the separation of ages and the perception of differences mirrors that of our society, it’s easy for us to think “that’s just the way it is.”  But it’s important to note that it wasn’t that way for centuries. And equally as important to note that the impact on the church is a substantial one. Why?

Because our faith is primarily passed from one generation to another.

That means in order for “one generation to praise Your works to another” the generations must interact; they must be in the same geographical space, speaking to each other and building relationships with one another if generational discipleship is to occur (Ps. 145:4).

Studies bear this out. 

One of the first longitudinal studies done on youth in regard to church attendance post high school once the Millennial decline became apparent was done by Fuller Youth Institute in 2006-2010 and they released their findings here. Their research found was that while most U.S. churches focus on building strong youth groups, teenagers also need to build relationships with adults of all ages.

Further research showed that while there was no “silver bullet” churches that encouraged intergenerational connections and worship and youth that felt involved and connected to the larger church had a much greater chance of remaining in church post high school. (The findings can be found here).

In 2016, Fuller Youth Institute released a new study called “Growing Young” that looked at churches that were continuing to “hold onto” their young people and even grow in the Millennial sector of their congregation. One of the key reasons they found for that was “Warm intergenerational relationships” at that “involving young people in every ministry has allowed these churches to thrive with authenticity and intergenerational relationships” (Source)

In 2017, The Journal of Intergenerational Relationships explained that intergenerational relationships create essential learning environments for all generations.

Specifically they find that three things are necessary for intergenerational learning, 1. There must be space to learn about one’s own generation with other generations, 2. All generations must act as learners and teachers at the same time, and 3. The learning must motivate participants towards in a particular way. (Source)

In other words, we need each other.

When phrases like “age segregation” and “generational gap” can be applied to our community of faith, we need to take a step back and consider the ramifications on sustainability and disciple-making and take serious consideration if the benefits outweigh the costs.

We need to take the time and be intentional not only about defining our “buzz words” but also determining the effect they are having on us, on the generations that precede ours and for the generations that are to come.

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About this Blog


Refocus Ministry was started by Christina Embree, wife to Pastor Luke, mom to three wonderful kids, and church planter at Plowshares BIC. With years of experience in family ministry and children’s ministry, she is passionate about seeing churches partnering with families to encourage faith formation at home and equipping parents to disciple their kids in the faith. She recently graduated with a Masters of Arts in Ministry focusing on Family, Youth and Children’s Ministry at Wesley Seminary, she also blogs at and is a contributing blogger at D6 Family,, and Seedbed

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